James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow. Library of America, 2005; $75; 748 pages; 818 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
VOLUME ONE: A passionate literary innovator, eloquent in language and uncompromising in his social observation and his pursuit of emotional truth, James Agee (1909-1955) excelled as novelist, critic, journalist, and screenwriter. In his brief, often turbulent life, he left enduring evidence of his unwavering intensity, observant eye, and sometimes savage wit. This volume collects his fiction along with his extraordinary experiment in what might be called prophetic journalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a collaboration with photographer Walker Evans that began as an assignment from Fortune magazine to report on the lives of Alabama sharecroppers, and that expanded into a vast and unique mix of reporting, poetic meditation, and anguished self-revelation that Agee described as "an effort in human actuality." A 64-page photo insert reproduces Evans's now iconic photographs from the expanded 1960 edition.
A Death in the Family, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that he worked on for over a decade and that was published posthumously in 1957, re-creates Agee's childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the upheaval his family experienced after his father's death in a car accident when Agee was six years old.
This volume also includes The Morning Watch (1951), an autobiographical novella that reflects Agee's deep involvement with religious questions, and three short stories including the remarkable allegory "A Mother's Tale."
VOLUME TWO: James Agee brought to bear all his moral energy, slashing wit, and boundless curiosity in the criticism and journalism that established him as one of the commanding literary voices of America at mid-century. In 1944 W.H. Auden called Agee's film reviews for The Nation "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today." Those columns, along with much of the movie criticism that Agee wrote for Time through most of the 1940s, were collected posthumously in Agee on Film, undoubtedly the most influential writings on film by an American.
Whether reviewing a Judy Garland musical or a wartime documentary, assessing the impact of Italian neorealism or railing against the compromises in a Hollywood adaptation of Hemingway, Agee always wrote of movies as a pervasive, profoundly significant part of modern life, a new art whose classics (Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Vigo) he revered and whose betrayal in the interests of commerce or propaganda he often deplored. If his frequent disappointments could be registered in acid tones, his enthusiasms were expressed with passionate eloquence. This Library of America volume supplements the classic pieces from Agee on Film, with previously uncollected writings on Ingrid Bergman, the Marx Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Shoeshine , and a wealth of other cinematic subjects.
Agee's own work as a screenwriter is represented by his script for Charles Laughton's unique and haunting masterpiece of Southern gothic, The Night of the Hunter, adapted from the novel by Davis Grubb. This collection also includes examples of Agee's masterfully probing reporting for Fortune -- on subjects as diverse as the Tennessee Valley Authority, commercial orchids, and cockfighting -- and a sampling of his literary reviews, among them appreciations of William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, S.J. Perelman, and William Carlos Williams.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Washington Post: These two volumes of the Library of America cap Agee's long progress upward. They contain virtually everything that an ordinary reader might want to read, excepting the marvelous self-portrait of the young artist contained in the Letters to Father Flye (posthumously published in 1962). On the other hand, editor Michael Sragow compensates for this omission by adding a hundred pages of hitherto uncollected movie reviews, as well as a choice selection of book pieces. Library Journal: Volume 2 is a sumptuous gathering of film reviews originally published in The Nation and Time, as well as some that have not appeared in previous collections. The range of these pieces is impressive, covering movies as varied as Lifeboat, The Song of Bernadette, and The Enchanted Cottage and focusing on every film personality imaginable; all of them bear the imprint of Agee's distinctive analytical and literary style. Additional works include the renowned essay on silent film comedy that appeared in Life , as well as literary reviews, reportage on subjects from orchids to cockfighting, and a screenplay for Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. The accompanying notes and chronology are quite helpful.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
Michael Sragow, editor, is the film critic for the Baltimore Sun and author of a forthcoming biography of Victor Fleming. His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Examiner, and The New Yorker.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE EDITOR:
Editor Michael Sragow was on his cell phone, seated on an Amtrak Metroliner that was taking him from New York to his home in Baltimore, and I was at home in California, when we talked. Born in 1952 in a hospital in Queens and reared in a small town in Southern Long Island, Sragow left high school a year early to go to New York University's film school. After a year at NYU Professor Sragow transferred to Harvard and studied history and literature. The professor did his thesis in history and literature on John Huston; it was the first undergraduate thesis on a film figure allowed. In 1992 The Harvard Advocate did an Agee commemorative issue and Professor Sragow wrote his first piece about Agee for that publication. Agee, also a Harvard student, was president of The Harvard Advocate .
Agee died in 1955, 45 years old. "He died on almost the same date of the year as did his father, which was freaky. [His father died in an auto accident on May 16, 1916; Agee died also on May 16.] It was the big event of his early life, his father's death, and then he, Agee, has a heart attack in a New York taxicab and dies. But he was still very prominent in people's minds when I was in school. I first read him in high school."